Not Your Typical Guide to Black New York

The Black Bucket List heads to New York, where we discover there's so much more to black history than the Harlem Renaissance -- like Do or Die Bed-Stuy circa 1838.


For years, African Americans visiting New York made sure to take a trip to the epicenter of the city’s black history — Harlem. But in the past decade, as the uptown community has undergone a dramatic revitalization, New York’s best-kept secret has exploded in popularity. Now tourists from around the world visit the sites of the original 1920s Renaissance, attend Sunday church services, cheer and jeer at the Apollo Theater and pull up to plates of soul food at Sylvia’s Restaurant.

But black New York is much more than just Harlem. The Big Apple has a rich heritage of African-American history — if you know where to find it.

So avoid the crowds and check out what else New York has to offer us:

Weeksville Heritage Center

1698 Bergen St., Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn

You know Bedford-Stuyvesant, aka Bed-Stuy, from Spike Lee’s movies Do the Right Thing and Crooklyn and as the setting of the TV show Everybody Hates Chris. Although, like Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant is rapidly morphing into a multicultural mecca, back in the day when hip-hop icons like Jay-Z, Mos Def and Notorious B.I.G. were growing up there, “Do or Die Bed-Stuy” was much rougher.

Lesser known is Bed-Stuy’s past as a thriving haven for African Americans after the abolition of slavery in New York state in 1827. James Weeks, a freedman, purchased land in what is now Bed-Stuy in 1838. He established Weeksville, a village of free African Americans — laborers, laundresses, craftsmen, doctors, entrepreneurs and professionals. Weeksville sparkled throughout the second half of the 19th century, creating schools, an orphanage, an elderly home, churches, benevolent associations and newspapers.

“A lot of free black communities were started by white people, like Quakers,” says Jennifer Scott, vice director and director of research at the Weeksville Heritage Center. “But Weeksville was started by black people for black people. It’s a story of victory.”

Dr. Susan McKinney-Steward, the first black female physician in New York and the third in the country, was born in Weeksville in 1847. By 1850 the community of 500 residents had the highest rate of property owners of any free black community in the United States.